The Role of Photographs and Films in Kettlewell's Popularizations of the Phenomenon of Industrial Melanism


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Abstract

H.B.D. Kettlewell's investigations on the phenomenon of industrial melanism are generally referred to in textbooks and other popularizations of science as the classic demonstration of natural selection (Majerus 1989). A central question for historians of this episode is accounting for why public perceptions of the importance of Kettlewell's work have diverged from those of researchers who actually work on the phenomenon. In a recent paper published in Biology and Philosophy, Joel Hagen draws attention to the role Kettlewell and his colleagues played in idealizing his investigations as an example of controlled experimentation in their several retrospective popular accounts. The present essay discusses the important role photographic and film depictions of differential bird predation played in Kettlewell's popularizations. This analysis supports Hagen's contentions that Kettlewell deftly and strategically used these visual representations to command assent to his interpretation of the phenomenon and shore up claims about the scientific legitimacy and importance of his work. It nevertheless disputes that these images were intended to portray Kettlewell's experiments as an example of controlled experimentation. In a concluding section, the essay draws several morals from this analysis regarding the use of popularized articles and visual images to teach science.

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